Early on a Thursday evening in April 2016, family members, friends, and the faithful at large gathered at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Fleming Island, Florida, to pray for the safe return of a beloved parish priest, Father Rene Robert. Several days earlier, he had vanished without a trace. Father Robert, 71-years-old and a priest of the Franciscan order, served a parish in St. Augustine, Florida. He was a man who reached out to addicts, the homeless, and convicts. Among the souls Father Robert tried to save was 28-year-old Steven Murray, a repeat offender who had just been released from yet another term in prison.
Eight days after he went missing, Father Robert’s body was found in a remote wooded area of Burke County, Georgia, 250 miles north of his parish. He had died from multiple gunshot wounds. Murray confessed to the crime and led police to the place where he killed the priest who tried to help him. As marshals led him from the Burke County courthouse, Murray said to reporters, “If anybody loves Father Rene, they’ll forgive me because he was a man of God, and forgiveness is forgiveness.” Then he added, “I have mental problems and I lost control of myself. I apologize.”
Murray has been in trouble with the law since he was 11 years old. In the last 17 years, he’s been arraigned on a host charges — larceny/grand larceny, violation of parole, unlawful possession of a firearm, to name a few. Murray estimates that he’s spent about half of his life behind bars in county jails or prison, and he doesn’t want to go away again. As he said to reporters from the Florida Times-Union, “I’m mentally tired. That is why the death penalty doesn’t scare me. I just want to get it over with. I just want to put it all behind me.”
It’s rare that the public will try to influence a district attorney on what sentence to pursue in an upcoming court case. But after Hank Sims — district attorney in Augusta, Georgia — announced that he would seek the death penalty for Murray, the case took an entirely unexpected turn.
Among Father Robert’s papers was found what is being called “a declaration of life.” Dated about 20 years ago, in this document Father Robert stated that if he were to die by an act of violence, he did not want his murderer to face the death penalty. Depending on your point of view, the declaration is either prophetic or eerie. And if you tend to be wary of surprise discoveries, you may wonder about the document’s authenticity.
Three Catholic bishops have no such doubts. Recently, Wilton Gregory, archbishop of Atlanta, Felipe Estevez, bishop of St. Augustine, and Gregory Hartmayer, bishop of Savannah, met with D.A. Sims to present him with a petition signed by opponents of the death penalty. The bishops also emphasized that Father Robert would not want the state to impose the death penalty on Murray if he is found guilty. D.A. Sims characterized his conversation with the bishops as “cordial.”
Afterward, the bishops met with the press. “It was violence that led to Father Rene’s death,” Bishop Estevez said. “It would be tragic that there would be more violence, the death of another person for no reason. What do we accomplish?”
On the subject of the death penalty, the Church is of two minds. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty.” Then the catechism goes on to quote Pope John Paul II that situations when the execution of an offender is an absolute necessity are “very rare, if not practically nonexistent.”
I confess that I oppose the death penalty, except on those occasions when I do not. I don’t mourn for Timothy McVeigh, and I will not weep if Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is executed.
As for the Bishop Estevez’s statement, I’m willing to cut him some slack; probably he is not accustomed to talking to an eager crowd of reporters, so what could have been a verbal slip-up must be forgiven. That said, I can’t go along with his conclusion that the execution of Steven Murray, if it comes to that, would be “for no reason.” The reason would be the pursuit of justice. As for Bishop Estevez’s question, “What do we accomplish?” once again, the answer is justice. Like the bishop and countless millions of believers around the globe, I rely on God’s mercy. But it is a good idea to bear in mind that another of God’s attributes is justice.
After a conviction, it’s common practice for the defense to file with the court letters from family and friends of the perpetrator appealing to the judge to exercise some measure of clemency when passing sentence. The defense attorney will also instruct his client to write to the judge, expressing remorse for his or her crime and promising to reform. Of course, we’re not anywhere near the sentencing stage. Preparations for the trial are still underway. Yet here we have an appeal to the judge and the prosecutors, not from the killer’s mother, but from the murdered victim. That’s wildly out of the ordinary, maybe even unique.
What further complicates the case is Murray’s rejection of the Father Robert declaration and his own appeal to the court that if he is found guilty, he will be executed rather than locked up.
This trial isn’t going to be anywhere near as sordid as the O.J. debacle, but the Murray case will still be worth watching.
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